The unfortunate demise of Chetan Chauhan, who was better known as the opening partner of Sunil Gavaskar during the 1970s and early 80s, on August 16, 2020, shocked cricket lovers. Chauhan was serving as the Minister for Sainik Welfare, Home Guards and Civil Security in the Uttar Pradesh Cabinet under Yogi Adityanath, when his end came. He was admitted to hospital after being tested positive for COVID-19 virus but his condition took a turn for the worse on account of multiple organ failure. He was on life support for 36 hours before finally losing the battle with the dreaded virus that has brought almost the entire world to a near lockdown.
It is a little known fact Chauhan played Test cricket during the 1960s much before Gavaskar made his bow in the international arena. Chauhan made his debut against the touring New Zealand side at Mumbai in September, 1969. He did not perform badly in this match and had scores of 18 and 34 in the two innings, but he was dropped from the side after the next game at Nagpur where he made only 14 and 19. The fact that India lost the second Test must have made his exclusion easier. He got one more chance during the same season when he opened the batting against Australia in the last Test of the series at Chennai. However, another failure meant that he was back to playing Ranji Trophy circuit.
Though born in UP, Chauhan did his college studies in Pune, where his success with the bat for the University team took him to the Maharashtra Ranji side in 1967. A century against the star-studded Mumbai earned him a place in the West Zone team for Duleep Trophy. A gritty innings of 103 in the final against South Zone, which boasted of almost the entire Indian bowling attack, won him the nod from national selectors who were looking to blood in young talent during the Test series against New Zealand. This was how Chauhan found himself opening the batting for India against the Kiwis at Mumbai in 1969.
Chauhan made tons of runs playing for Maharasthra in the domestic circuit and he partnered Madhu Gupte in a record opening stand of 405 runs in 1973. This brought him into the national reckoning again and he was back in the Indian squad during the series against England in 1972-73. He played in the third and fourth Tests held at Chennai and Kanpur, scoring a total of 34 runs in four innings and was dropped from the side after that. Even worse, he was so defensive that commentators dubbed him as a “strokeless wonder”, with his knock of 22 coming in 173 minutes on a placid pitch at Kanpur.
At this juncture, the observers of the game could be pardoned for thinking that Chauhan’s international career was effectively over. He had played five Tests against three opposing sides, out of which two possessed ordinary bowling attacks, in conditions that did not suit fast bowling, but could not score even a half-century on any of the ten occasions that he took guard at the wicket. He lost his place in the West Zone side as well and it appeared that he was consigned for a life on the fringes of Indian cricket, destined to remain as one of the many players fortunate to break into the national side but not good enough to cement their place in the side.
However, Chauhan had other ideas. He decided to move to Delhi and forced his way to the North Zone side. It was rumoured that Bishen Singh Bedi, then captain of national side was the person instrumental in Chauhan making this move. Chauhan played the Duleep Trophy matches held in 1977, just prior to India's tour of Australia with a broken jaw, but struck a gritty century. This knock helped him to win the nod of selectors and he became part of the squad.
Chauhan’s selection was not without controversies as the player he replaced was Anshuman Gaekwad, who had partnered Gavaskar at the top of the batting order during the previous 11 Tests. Chauhan was left out of the playing eleven for the first Test and when he finally got an opportunity in the second Test at Perth, he grabbed it with both hands to score a gritty 88. The comfort with which he tackled Jeff Thomson, then the fastest bowler in the world in the pitch at Western Australian Cricket Association (WACA) stadium which favoured speedsters, showed that he possessed the necessary skill sets to become a regular opener for the national side. He did not look back after that and played in all the remaining Test matches of that series, finishing with a total tally of 229 runs from seven innings. By the time the last Test of the series began, Chauhan had established his place in the side so firmly that Gaekwad, who was called to the squad as a replacement, was not considered for opening the innings with Gavaskar and instead batted in the middle order.
Chauhan played in all the Test matches from then on except the Jubilee Test against England when he was injured, till he was dropped from the side in 1981. This included tours of Pakistan in 1978, England in 1979 and Australia and New Zealand (1980-81) and the home series against the West Indies (1978-79), Australia 1979) and Pakistan (1979-80). He forged an excellent understanding with Gavaskar and the two were involved in many significant partnerships at the top of the order. The most important among them are 192 in the second innings against Pakistan at Lahore, when India was trying to save the Test, 213 against England in the second innings at Oval, which laid the foundation for a brilliant chase, and 165 against Australia in the second innings at Sydney, which helped to salvage the Indian batting and finally led to a famous win. The significance of these stands lies in the fact that all these came in the second innings in pitches on foreign soil, when India had their backs to the wall.
The dropping of Chauhan from the national side when England arrived in India to pay a six-Test series in 1981-82 shocked the followers of the game. He had an eminently successful run during the series against Australia and New Zealand the previous winter, scoring 388 runs which included three scores above fifty. He was also the second highest scorer in Test matches during that twin tours, after Sandeep Patil. Further, he had also provided a semblance of stability at the top of the batting order when Gavaskar went into a rare lean patch. His replacement in the side against England, Krishnamachari Srikkanth, was dropped after three Tests but the selectors were stubborn in their decision not to give Chauhan another chance. This led to instability in the opening slot, which continued for the next three years, when many options were tried, till Srikkanth stabilised his place in the Test side by the end of 1984. The feeling persists in the minds of observers that dropping of Chauhan was on account of three of the selectors ganging up against skipper Gavaskar, who had lost his first Test series in New Zealand and was on a weaker wicket during the selection process. Otherwise nowhere in cricket history would one see an established opening partnership being destroyed through the dropping of a player who had being doing consistently well.
Chauhan ended his career with 2,084 runs from 40 Tests at an average of 31.57. He played in only seven One-Day Internationals (ODIs), which was not surprising as he was not considered to be a batsman who believed in scoring runs quickly. He was unfortunate that he could not score a century in Test cricket despite coming very close to the three figure mark on numerous occasions, the closest being when he was dismissed just three runs short of this landmark in the first innings of the second Test of the 1980-81 series against Australia at Adelaide.
.If Chauhan was seen playing second fiddle to the great Gavaskar, he came into his own after hanging up his boots. He navigated the treacherous waters of the Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA) politics with aplomb and served as national selector as well as manager of the Indian side. He also entered the arena of parliamentary politics and did well, winning elections to Lok Sabha on two occasions - in 1991 and 1998 - from Amroha in UP. He served for a year as Chairman of National Institute of Fashion Technology before getting elected as a member of UP legislative assembly in 2017.
The worth of Chetendra Pratap Singh Chauhan to Indian cricket can never measured in terms of mere runs or statistics. He was a doughty fighter, who faced the fury of the fast bowlers with grit and courage, never yielding an inch, while always playing within his limitations. He was not flamboyant nor did he chase records; he was the ultimate team man, who did all he could for the sake of the side. He was the perfect foil to Gavaskar, kept his end safe and adjusted his game perfectly to the needs of the situation. It was his determination and resilience that saw him stage a comeback after being dropped from the national side on two occasions. It were the same qualities of fortitude and flexibility that saw him meet with success in his innings after cricket as well.
Rest in peace, Chetan Chauhan. You will always remain in the hearts of the followers of Indian cricket.
(The author is a fromer international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)